Uninsured Americans turn to mobile clinics

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Imagine having daily debilitating dizziness, near-blinding blurred vision and horrendous headaches - and no remedy.

Kim Fannon, 43, a single mother in the economically depressed town of Coeburn in Southwestern Virginia, doesn’t have to imagine. That was her reality for four long years.

“I was in bad shape, but I didn’t know how bad,” said Ms. Fannon, who subsisted with the help of the federal program Medicaid.

Ms. Fannon got relief - and a scary diagnosis - when she visited a free mobile medical clinic called RAM (Remote Area Medical) a few months ago at the nearby Wise County Fairgrounds.

And she wasn’t alone.

Nearly 2,700 other patients (many who camped out for days) came to the three-day clinic in a scene reminiscent of Walker Evans’ famous photos taken during the Great Depression: Haggard faces that projected desperation - and resignation.

“I came in to check my eyes and get glasses and was sent for a CAT scan immediately,” Ms. Fannon said.

“It turned out I had one large brain tumor as big as a lemon and four small ones,” she said in a drawl that anchored her vowels in the back of her mouth and turned “lemon” into “limon.” Fortunately, they were all benign.

Ms. Fannon’s story is not unique. Roughly 45 million people in the United States are uninsured and 20 million more are underinsured, according to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Lack of access to [affordable] medical care is not a problem confined to poor, inner-city neighborhoods. It’s an American problem,” said Diane Rowland, the commission’s executive director. “It’s a problem that makes people drive three hours and wait for days for free dental care. It’s a problem that makes America look like a Third World country.”

Yet health care - in these financially troubled times - is not a top election issue in 2008, said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

“Americans care a lot about health care,” Mr. Herrnson said. “But will health care be at the top of people’s minds when they go to the polls on November 4? No, not likely.”

In the most recent presidential debate a week ago, the term “health care” was uttered 28 times. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain agreed that the cost of health care needed to be lowered.

Mr. McCain proposes a $5,000 tax credit for families to choose plans from private insurance companies, while Mr. Obama promises to expand health coverage with a mixture of public and private efforts and to cut costs for families by an average of $2,500 annually.

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